Song Stories: David Bowie – Time Will Crawl

Given that today would have been David Bowie’s 74th birthday, we want to take a closer look at one of his tracks that emerged out of the 80s. Author Chris O’Leary, who is an absolute Bowie expert, runs the website Pushing Ahead of the Dame, where he takes down the artist’s entire Discography and gives thoughtful song by song insights. Today we want to share his story on Bowie’s 1987 “Time Will Crawl” which served as the second single for his seventeenth album Never Let Me Down.

On 26 April 1986, while Bowie was recording at Mountain Studios in Switzerland, a reactor exploded in the Chernobyl nuclear power station (in the then-Soviet Union), sending a cloud of death into the air. He heard the news in fragments over the radio. The memory of standing outside in the sunlight, knowing that a cloud of radiation was sailing his way from the East, unsurprisingly proved a potent image for Bowie – shades of the last Australians in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach – and inspired him to write “Time Will Crawl”, one of the few strong tracks on Never Let Me Down.

The central theme was powerlessness, passivity and deference in the face of a death owed to the hubris of others. Bowie’s first lines are a run of consecutive humilities, a man bowing to church and government (in the refrain, the man is compared to just another poor animal), while the last recall when Big Science came to town: soon enough “we only smelled the gas/when we lay down to sleep.” The second verse, placed out of sequence, is the after-effects: rotting fish, anti-radiation pills, bloated corpses, nature itself weaponized.

Bowie had once written rapturous apocalypse songs – “Five Years” sang out the death of the world like one last pub chant. But apocalypse was an old, tired game now, and there was no use in getting torn up about it. Chernobyl had offered a preview of how it could play out: the end caused by arrogance and sloppiness, the unhappy result of a bureaucratic bungle for which no one would take responsibility.

“There is a rudeness about it musically. It doesn’t do very much. It just sort of plows through.”

david bowie

So “Time Will Crawl” sounds drained, its singer hardly bothered to care, let alone rousing to anger: he just documents horrors in his near-monotone. Bowie’s phrases in the verse mainly keep to a three-note range (a typical phrase is “drowning man”, which nudges up a semitone, then falls by a second) while his lyric dispenses with rhyme in favor of a slow, nagging momentum, as though the singer is being prodded to offer something else in his deposition. Bowie uses a short three-note phrase (“I felt a”) to hook into a longer one (“warm warm breeze”) and then, a beat later, brackets that with another short hook (“that melted”), and so on, which means the verses have no natural end point and could ramble on indefinitely. “There is a rudeness about it musically. It doesn’t do very much. It just sort of plows through”, Bowie said of the track at the time. And the intro, verse and chorus have the same minimal chord structure – a progression that moves from tonic chord (B minor) to either the VI or VII chord (G or A), then falls back to B minor.

Bowie said he was inspired by Neil Young in writing “Time Will Crawl”, and the verses seem crafted for Young’s voice. Another obvious influence is Dylan’s “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, also a stream of post-apocalyptic imagery, though the comparison of “Hard Rain” and “Time Will Crawl” highlights the deterioration in Bowie’s writing by the mid-Eighties. Take the stumbling, prosaic Major Tom section of the second verse: “he took a top gun pilot, and he/ he made him fly through a hole/’till he grew real old.” Even the refrain (inspired by “this week dragged past me so slowly/the days fell on their knees” from “Stay”) is clunky and thudding, the harsh “AWL” sound left hanging in the air whenever the title phrase is sung. But this fits with the sense of bitterness and exhaustion in the song. The end of the world is no longer worthy of grand anthems.